A History of SKY KING
By Kent Volgamore.
In 1946, Sky King first aired as an American adventure series on the radio. The series was likely based on a true-life person, Jack Cones, the Flying Constable of Twenty-nine Palms during the 1930s. The radio show was the brainchild of Robert Morris Burtt and Wilfred Gibbs Moore. (Moore also created Captain Midnight.)
Originally, Sky King was a daily 15-minute serial radio episode, and by 1947, it was a 30-minute program twice a week, sponsored by Peter Pan Peanut Butter. The show aired on the radio until 1954, and ran concurrently with its television version that began in 1952.
Sky King was a story about an Arizona rancher and airplane pilot, named Schuyler “Sky” King. The setting took place on Sky’s “Flying Crown Ranch,” near the fictional town of “Grover,” Arizona. Sky’s plane, a Cessna T-50 twin-engine bamboo bomber, was called the “Songbird.”
Although the story was considered to be a Western, Sky always captured the bad guys, and found lost hikers as well, using his airplane. Several actors played the part of “Sky” in the radio version, including Earl Nightingale and John Reed King.
Many radio shows of the 1940′s era offered “premiums” to its listeners. On November 2, 1947, in the episode titled “Mountain Detour,” the “Sky King Secret Signalscope” was used. Listeners were advised to get their own for only 15 cents and the inner seal from a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter (produced by the show’s sponsor, Derby Foods).
Everyone listening to the radio show surely wanted a Signalscope. It included a glow-in-the-dark signaling device, whistle, magnifying glass and Sky King’s private code. The Signalscope even allowed a person to see around corners and trees as well.
Other Sky King premiums were just as innovative, such as the “Sky King Spy-Detecto Writer,” which had a “decoder” (cipher disk), magnifying glass, measuring scale, and printing mechanism in a single package slightly over 2 inches long. Or the “Magni-Glo Writing Ring,” which had a luminous element, a secret compartment, a magnifier, and a ballpoint pen all in the crownpiece of a “fits any finger” ring.
THE TELEVISION SHOW
Kirby Grant starred as “Sky King” in the televised series that began in 1952. Grant was a pilot in real life, and the “Songbird,” the Cessna T-50 aircraft used in the televised series, was actually his personal plane.
Gloria Winters co-starred as Sky’s teenage niece, “Penny,” and Ron Hagerthy played the part of Sky’s nephew, “Clipper.” Penny and Clipper were also pilots, though still relatively inexperienced, and they often looked to their uncle for guidance and mentoring. Penny was an accomplished air racer and rated multiengine pilot, who Sky trusted to fly the Songbird.
Other television cast characters in Sky King were Chubby Johnson, who played the role of “Jim Bell,” Sky’s ranch foreman, and Ewing Mitchell as the sheriff, “Mitch.” Mitch was competent, intelligent and skilled. He was always turning to Sky for help, due to their friendship, and the great resource of Sky’s flying skills.
Kirby Grant’s original Songbird aircraft was made of wood, (nicknamed “bamboo bomber” accordingly). When it eventually became unsafe to fly, he sold it, and then flew a twin-engine Cessna 310B for the remainder of the Sky King series. Although Grant changed from one plane to another during the course of the series, the later plane was not given a number (i.e., “Songbird II”), but was simply known as “Songbird.”
The 72 individual episodes of the low-budget television series of Sky King were made for approximately $9,000 each. They were filmed in black-and-white during three periods, as sponsors changed.
The television series ran on NBC from September 16, 1951 until October 26, 1952. Then ABC picked up the series and ran the same NBC episodes from November 8, 1952, until September 12, 1954. A season of new episodes was aired from 1955 to 1956, and then again from 1957 to 1962. Although the show continued in syndication for years afterward, the actors did not receive any residuals. There is a myth that 136 televised episodes of Sky King actually existed, but 72 was all that were produced and telecast.
Special thanks to Ron Muecke of Flying Crown and the folks of Sky King at www.skyking.com.